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Aviation Insurance
Tuesday, August 1, 2000
Vain checks

When Captain Christian Marty refused to take off until repairs had been carried out on one of his Concorde’s four engines, little did he know that his concern for safety was to be in vain. Apparently, he had over-ruled a previous decision not to effect the repairs. After about a 65-minute delay during which the repairs were carried out on engine number two’s reverse thrusters, Concorde charter flight number AF4590 eventually took-off from Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris at about 16.41 local time on July 25th, bound for New York. But within three minutes all 109 crew and passengers were dead.

It will not go down in the annals of aviation history as the worst air disaster on record, but it may go down as the most spectacular. Occurring so close to the ground, it was filmed by amateur video from a passing motorcar, while local sightseers also snapped still photographs that added to early evidence of an uncontrollable fire spurting out from the left wing of the jet as it left the ground.
The latest hypothesis is that at least one tyre, maybe two burst on the runway and may have started a chain of events that led to the disaster. At such high speed fragments of the tyre and wheel shrapnel would have behaved like bullets and could have pierced the wing, and perhaps severed fuel lines and damaged the undercarriage. Investigators do know that engine number two — the one on which repairs had just been carried out — failed completely and that the pilot could not retract the undercarriage (see side-bar on more crash details).
Investigators also know that engine number one lost power twice, once on the runway and again less than a minute into the flight. The unusual engine configuration — the engines are mounted very close together in pairs on each wing, could have contributed to multiple engine failure on the port side. With Concorde at maximum throttle for take-off it would burn about 100 kgs of fuel a minute. As the fuel spurted out of severed supply lines it would have ignited spontaneously, with flames shooting a burning trail that reached 60 metres in length, the same length as the plane itself.
France’s Accident Investigation Bureau, which is heading the technical inquiry into the crash, has already said that one of the pieces of the jet found on the runway appeared to be part of the fuel tank. This appears to support the theory that the fuel tank - rather than an engine, as previously thought - may have been punctured by a fragment of the Concorde’s wheel after a tyre burst as the plane hurtled along the runway.
This is no lumbering jumbo ponderously rising into the air, but a sub-space vehicle, capable of reaching a speed of 2 333 kph, and the closest most people will ever get to space travel. It cruises at about 60 000 feet (or about 18 kms altitude). It has to leave the ground at 220 knots (or about 410 kph). This is around double that of other commercial aviation craft, and necessary because of its slicked back wings, contoured for speed — so there’s no mucking about on the runway. Passengers are warned beforehand that this rapid take-off will be quickly followed by the ignition of after-burners, basically a secondary burn of unspent fuel from the main jets (see box).
The safety protocols for all aircraft include a take-off/abort decision point, or ‘V1’. Below this speed the pilot is able to abort take-off; but above V1 he must continue with take-off, even if he suspects trouble.
It is unlikely, however, that the crew were aware of the problem until the craft had left the ground. Air traffic control then radioed the pilot to advise the port engine was on fire. The pilot could not retract the undercarriage, suggesting the fire was already interfering with the control systems. The wheels were adding drag to a plane already crippled as total engine failure developed on the port thrusters.
  Whatever was the initial cause of the engine failure, what made matters worse was that Concorde’s four Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 turbojet engines are mounted in close-knit pairs on each wing. It is possible that engine one’s failure not only interfered with the running of engine two, but also disabled its controls.
The pilot would have tried to stabilise the jet, and then prepare for an emergency landing at Le Bourget airport some three kilometres away. However, Concorde appeared to stall and it was all the pilot could do to swerve the falling jet away from the town centre of Gonesse, before crashing to the ground about 15 km northeast of Paris, engulfing the Hotel Hotelissimo in an explosive inferno as 100 tonnes of fuel incinerated 9 crew and 99 passengers. Mercifully only five other people were killed on the ground – 114 in all.


Concorde was on a charter flight arranged by Deilmann, a luxury tour company based in Germany, and was carrying German tourists bound for New York where they were to join a cruise ship. A one-way trip would have cost them about $5 000.
La Reunion Aerienne provides the cover for some of Air France’s insurance needs and has been reported as announcing immediate advance payments of 140 000 French Francs (or about US $21 200) to the relatives of victims ‘to help family members deal with difficult, painful situations.’ This would be deducted from the ultimate amount of compensation that would be paid out.
How much that will be depends as much on the outcome of the investigation as on the quality of legal representation. Was there any negligence as far as the refitment of the reverse thrusters on engine number two was concerned? To what extent were safety regulations adhered? And why have so many tyres blown out on Concorde operations before?
The French insurers will naturally have reinsured the risks around the world, with London probably predominating.
Comments Henry Tours an aviation consultant and insurance specialist, “Air France, in keeping with a compassionate feeling airline, has already offered partial compensation to the families; unlike TWA and the rest where families had to wait for years before getting a bean.”
He is not sure of the insured hull value of Concorde. There are only 12 left in service, seven with British Airways and five with Air France. They have no resale value, other than the value of their parts, which both airlines cannibalise from the grounded Concordes to keep their active fleet in working order. British Airways says in this way it hopes to keep its Concorde service operating until at least 2010 possibly 2015 at which time the supersonic planes will reach final retirement. Consequently their value would probably be based only on their future revenue and profit stream.
Mr Tours notes that the price guide says ‘no established market’. “The plane is pretty old, and I would have thought something along the lines of $50m - $100 million.
“The Hull claim will be 100% of the value but the total of the passenger claims is difficult to tell at this stage.” He notes that the victims’ families will be able to bring their claims in France, Germany or the US. “No prize for guessing where they will prefer to go,” he says.
Strictly speaking the tickets and contract for carriage would limit the liability to about $100 000 per person as the flight was International and is governed by the Warsaw Convention, he notes. “However, the limitation can be lifted if gross negligence can be shown. In the US the tendency is to call all accidents Gross Negligence and go for all the compensation that a very sick US society will dish out.
“The people on the ground have a claim without having to prove negligence, the same as in South Africa under Section 11 of the Aviation Act. All they have to do is prove quantum. I am not sure whether they will be able to bring their claim in the US, but certainly Texas will welcome the case — even though it’s got nothing to do with Texas!”
  He suggests that Air France would probably insure its liabilities for about $1,5 billion, maybe $2 billion. “The estimate for settlement in respect of this disaster would probably be in the region of $100 million, I guess. But settlement might well be a lot less.”
Mr Tours acknowledges that Concorde has had a “supremely good accident history over its extraordinary long life.
“This can be attributed to the superb maintenance programmes adopted by the UK and France. It will be an eye opener to find out what caused the engine to go out. It might well wind up as a maintenance claim instead of an airline one, or with major contributions from that source.”
He believes that the claim will not affect the aviation market that much. “It is already in trouble with claims exceeding premiums by many millions of dollars. It may give a boost to increasing aviation premiums, but they are on the move anyway.”

How Concorde Crashed

According to the BBC News Service the latest view is that the disaster appears to have been caused by a massive fuel leak, and not one of the engines. As the Concorde built up speed down the runway, smoke appeared around the two left-hand engines. One of them powered down, and the second effectively cut out completely. It is not clear whether the pilot noticed this - but in any event it was already too late to abort take-off: there was no more runway.
As Concorde roared westwards from the airport, the smoke was replaced by flames, and some 56 seconds into the flight the control tower radioed the pilot and alerted him to flames streaking past the tail end. The pilot replied, “Fault in engine number two,” adding that the undercarriage had failed to retract.
As the growing crisis is witnessed from miles around, the flames grew to some 200ft in length - about the same length as the aircraft itself. The pilot requested an emergency landing at nearby Le Bourget airport. Engine one on the left-hand wing loses power a second time. Tyre debris is scattered on the ground.
The pilot attempted to increase air speed to stabilise Concorde, but it is unknown as yet whether he had tried to or had the ability to shut down the affected engines. Little more than a kilometre from the airport and at an estimated altitude of between 200ft and 300ft, the pilot made an attempt to gain further altitude.
The nose of Concorde then lifted but, according to the BBC’s information, it then suffered an ‘airframe stall’ - the combination of too sharp an angle, too little speed and therefore too little lift, and this rendered the aircraft uncontrollable.
Some five kilometres from the airport, the plane was totally out of control. It then rolled leftwards and began to tumble with the nose still in the air. According to eyewitness they say the craft actually slid backwards, and then fell towards the small Paris suburban town of Gonesse. Less than three minutes after take-off, Concorde then crashed into farmland and the Hotel Hotelissimo in Gonesse, completely destroying the building, killing all 109 on board the plane and five on the ground.
A neighbouring hotel, Les Relais Bleus, was damaged but the rest of the suburb was spared the consequences of a direct hit.


Concorde flew its maiden flight in 1969 and was put into commercial service in 1976. There are now 12 left in service, with the airlines cannibalising the rest for spare parts. It was expected that the fleet would gradually be retired with the last being scrapped in about fifteen years’ time. British Airways still has seven. Air France has grounded its remaining five Concorde’s until the flight recorders have been fully analysed.
According to reports Jacques Girerd, spokesman for France’s civil aviation authority, told a French newspaper that Air France Concorde flights could resume within a week if an adequate safety check system was agreed. However, another report noted that the French Transport Ministry had said it would await the findings of an air accident report, due at the end of August, before allowing the Air France fleet off the ground. A team of British air accident investigators from the UK’s Department of Transport is assisting in preparing the report, out of which hopefully will emerge not only a full explanation of the accident, but a series of useful checks that will allow Concorde to fly without risking a repeat scenario.
Meanwhile, British Airways decided to resume flights of its seven-strong fleet the day after the crash. Nor did it have any plans to ground any of its Concordes, despite the spate of incidents over the weekend after the disaster (see box).
Concorde has suffered blown-out tyres on numerous occasions in the past, but never has the plane suffered a disaster. Blown tyres may have occurred in as many as 25 landings/take-offs during the plane’s commercial service, now spanning some 24 years. Indeed in an incident recorded as early as June 1979 at Dulles International Airport, Washington, the blowout of two tyres on the left main landing gear led to extensive damage to one engine and fuel tanks. Tyre debris and wheel shrapnel resulted in damage to number two engine, the puncture of three fuel tanks and the severance of several hydraulic and electrical wires. A large hole was also torn in the skin of the top wing. Sound familiar?
There have also been air safety reports about Concorde’s engines. And hairline cracks have been found on the wings of several planes in the fleets of both British Airways and Air France, although experts have dismissed this as having any bearing on the accident.
Both flight recorders have been successfully recovered. The investigation is already focusing on four areas:

• The discovery of shredded tyre fragments on the runway
• The flames and smoke coming from the port (left-hand) wing
• The two engines reported and recorded to have been at fault
• The undercarriage’s failure to retract
• Sequence of events

A preliminary report on the crash is due out by the end of August. By Nigel Benetton

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:13.7 1st August, 2000
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